Mobile food banks roll through rural US transforming food deserts

Traveling to distant grocery stores and paying for groceries can be extremely difficult for the disabled, aging, and poor living in isolated areas. Mobile pantries play an essential role in combatting food insecurity in rural counties – providing both food and hope. 

Kelsey Walling/The Galveston County Daily News/AP
Loa Heckendorn organizes dry food at M.I. Lewis Social Service Center in Dickinson, Texas, on June 27, 2018. Mobile food banks in rural areas are essential for people who struggle with food security.

On a recent sultry summer afternoon, 81-year-old widow Nellie Allen sat on the porch of her one-story brick home, one in a strip of government-subsidized houses surrounded by fields and country roads.

Ms. Allen makes do on $900 a month from Social Security. She raised four kids and never worked outside the home. She doesn’t drive, so she can’t get to the nearest grocery store, which is several miles away. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be able to afford to buy what she needs.

The big truck heading her way pulls to the side of a one-lane road to let oncoming cars pass by before it can reach her.

The truck is the West Alabama Food Bank’s mobile pantry. Its cargo includes some 5,000 pounds of food – boxes of bread, fruits, vegetables, drinks, and pastries that it will deliver to dozens of people in rural Alabama, many of them poor, aging, or disabled. All of them, like Allen, need help to make ends meet.

Allen pushes her wheelbarrow down a cracked sidewalk to a dead end to receive her groceries. Allen examines the contents of the box: She happily notices the lettuce and other greens she can put into a salad. With ranch dressing.

“We don’t get the same stuff every time,” she said. “But I can cook with it.”

Food pantries and soup kitchens tend to be in densely populated cities, where they can draw a lot of people. That model doesn’t work in rural counties, where settlement is sparse.

Counties with the highest rates of “food insecurity,” where people don’t have enough access to affordable, nutritious food, are disproportionately rural.

Rural counties make up 63 percent of US counties but 79 percent of those with the worst food insecurity rates, according to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks.

A confluence of events has led to a recent push for mobile food pantries. Hunger has decreased somewhat in urban settings since the Great Recession, but it remains stubborn in rural areas.

“The persistence is in these rural communities,” said Erin McDonald, vice president of research at Feeding America. That, combined with a trend in food service toward fresh and healthy food, even for the poor, instead of the old-fashioned canned and dry goods, has led pantries to use trucks.

Fresh food doesn’t keep, she said, and the rural poor lack transportation to food outlets with reasonable prices.

“Lack of availability or cost, even with SNAP benefits, is a real challenge,” she said, referring to food stamps. “The combination of those factors results in a lot of our food banks stepping in ... and turning to mobile access.”

The West Alabama Food Bank has a handful of refrigerated delivery trucks and recently received a $47,150 state grant to retrofit a 28-foot trailer with air conditioning, handicapped accessible features, a freezer, and a cooler to serve more residents of “food deserts” in the western part of the state, near the Mississippi border.

While traditional food pantry trucks distribute boxes of preselected food, the new trailer, to be hitched up to a pickup truck, will allow people to select their own food. Most of it will be free, and the rest will be sold at or below cost.

Rural poverty levels have exceeded urban poverty for decades, according to a 2017 US Department of Agriculture report. In the South, nearly 22 percent of residents who don’t live in metropolitan areas are in poor households. Over 15 percent of rural counties are “persistently poor,” compared with just 4 percent of urban counties.

The West Alabama Food Bank serves nine rural counties where more than 15 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line, which is drawn at $25,100 for a family of four in 2018. Jean Rykaczewski, executive director of the West Alabama Food Bank, notes that one county in her territory, Sumter, has only three grocery stores, two of them in the town of Livingston, Ala.

“The rest of the time people are having to go to convenience stores, where they pay up to $5.99 for a gallon of milk that could be had for about $2.50 in Tuscaloosa,” she said. “We don’t have a big public transportation system out here. People are paying neighbors or friends or even family $25 for a trip to the grocery store.”

The new, large mobile food market will give people more control over what they get to eat, Ms. Rykaczewski said. Rather than taking a prefilled box, they will get to make food choices, especially if they can buy some of the items at a low cost.

On the truck, Sabine Nad, who grew up in Germany in a farming community and was taught from an early age not to waste food, keeps a record of all her clients. They must register with the county social service department and qualify for the free food based on their incomes.

“I make it a bit easier for them because I come right to them,” said Ms. Nad. She packs boxes in the Alabama heat, perspiring as she chooses from donated bags of lettuce, fresh celery, squash, grapes, and oranges. A few drinks like soda, juice, or Vitamin Water go into the boxes, along with day-old breads, cakes, donuts, and some boxes of cereal. The cartons are piled high.

Allen says the best part of meeting the food truck every other week is getting to talk to Nad, who has become her friend. They hug before Allen loads her box onto the wheelbarrow.

Allen’s friend O’Neal West, 78, hovers nearby in overalls, readying a makeshift hand truck held together with black tape to haul his box. They walk off slowly, together, Allen nursing a creaky back.

Down the road, John Seals, 83, pushes an empty wheelchair up to Nad’s truck. He loads a box into the chair and starts off toward his home. “It’s a real blessing to get this food,” he said. The chair belonged to his late wife, he recalls wistfully. “We kept the chair, and it comes in handy.”

This story was reported by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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